Few, proud and ridiculed Yugos: Owners of the dwindling boxy cars remain fiercely devoted to the small import, putting up with scarce parts and bad jokes.

September 30, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

What the 200 or so Yugo owners in Maryland need is a spokesman, someone to fend off the jokes about wheezing engines, exploding pistons and 8-gallon gas tanks.

Frank Fischer is their man. Five days a week, the 53-year-old walks out of his Baltimore rowhouse, slips his 6-foot, 212-pound frame into a 1989 Yugo and drives 20 miles south to Jessup -- where he works as a truck driver.

"People are under the impression a Yugo ain't going to be able to keep up with highway traffic," Fischer says, speaking over the whine of his 55-horsepower engine while zipping along Interstate 95 recently. "They're wrong."

Doing 60 mph in Fischer's Yugo feels like 100 mph in a Honda Accord -- or 30 mph in a go-cart.

But consider this: Fischer paid only $2,495 for the car -- brand new. He's driven it 135,000 miles and reports only two problems: he had to replace the clutch this summer, and he makes do with a window crank fashioned from a mop handle.

Along the dashboard of the Yugo's otherwise spotless interior, Fischer has lined up 11 models of another hapless hero, Daffy Duck.

"Just give the car a chance," he asks.

But few Marylanders are taking the Yugo chance. Only one of every 15,000 registered vehicles in the state is a Yugo, a four-cylinder boxy hatchback imported from Yugoslavia in the late 1980s. The car has had so many problems that one local mechanic -- on the few occasions that he still spots a parked Yugo -- always tucks a business card under one of the tiny windshield wipers.

The estimated 200 Yugo holdouts are still out there, though. They scramble for spare parts, wave at each other during rare wheeze-bys and boast about how Yugos are never stolen. At red lights, they field the same old questions from those in the next lane:

"They still make those things? Wasn't the factory blown up during the war? That's a three-cylinder, right?"

Still, the longer the Yugos are on the road, the more they produce unexpected tributes.

There's the holistic wellness counselor in Catonsville with a problem-free, 9-year-old Yugo.

"Personally," she says of the Yugo's Spartan interior, "I haven't missed the glove compartment."

While attending Archbishop High School in Baltimore two years ago, Brian Wehner's high-school buddies repeatedly slipped out into the parking lot, picked up his Yugo and propped the back end on a foot-high median. Wehner claims the car was so tough he simply drove it off the median.

And in the tiny Western Maryland town of Smithsburg, a 58-year-old machinist named Elwood Leather describes his 60,000-mile Yugo as both dependable and economical, but acknowledges: "My kids keep telling me I should get rid of it before I get killed."

$3,990 base price

The cars arrived in the United States in late 1985 with a base price of $3,990 and the slogan: "Everybody you know needs a Yugo!"

They were built in a factory in Kragujevac that received parts from throughout then-multiethnic Yugoslavia -- plastics from Croatia, seats from Macedonia and electronics from Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The company sold 50,000 cars in 1986, says Stu Riegel of Grove City, Ohio, who is all things Yugo: historian, author, collector, rebuilder, racer.

Yugo sales slipped over the next four years, due to what Riegel terms "shaky build quality," a descending reputation and Asian competition. By 1991, Yugo America had filed for bankruptcy -- twice -- and had quit selling cars. American dealers were so eager to unload Yugos that some offered deals like: "Buy a Buick, get a free Yugo."

Those who'd already bought Yugos panicked about finding parts. Talk to enough of them, and one phrase starts to repeat itself: "The clutch went up on it."

Other notable problems include faulty timing belts and exploding pistons, according to area mechanics.

'Little engine noise'

"I had one guy come in on a Monday morning, just as calm and cool as he could be," recalled Ed Schneider of Di Fatta Brothers garage in Baltimore. "He said, 'I have a little engine noise I want you to listen to.' Little noise? It sounded like rain on a tin roof. An engine piston had cracked. I knew some that had less than 5,000 miles on them when the piston exploded."

A former Yugo official in the United States, Dave Benton, acknowledges the first 10,000 imported Yugos had problems. "I can't deny that," he said, adding the cars got much better.

Schneider and other mechanics say that the Yugo owners who gave their cars constant attention and maintenance were often rewarded. They're not surprised that some well-kept Yugos are still out there.

"That car took a bum rap in this country," insists Schneider. "All the jokes you hear, like 'Why does a Yugo have a rear-window defroster? So your hands can stay warm while you're pushing it,' they are cruel and unfair."

The jokes are also standard features.

"If you take yourself too seriously, you've got no business driving a Yugo," says Riegel, the Ohio man who has raced Yugos at 120 mph. "People are going to make jokes. If you can't deal with it, buy a Cadillac -- or a Toyota."

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